There are few certainties in the ACC this season. Florida State is expected to be selected by every preseason poll as the top team in the conference, with Clemson expected to be a clear No. 2 in the Atlantic. Louisville isn’t far behind the Tigers and could be a top-25 team this year.
In the Coastal, it’s a wide-open battle for the No. 1 spot. The top six teams in the division are close, and a 5-3 record may be enough to play in the conference championship.
Considering the uncertainty in the Coastal, along with the teams in the Atlantic outside of Florida State and Clemson, it seems the ACC is ripe for a surprise team to contend for a spot in the conference championship game.
With a favorable schedule, a solid rushing attack and a potential All-American in receiver Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh is an interesting team to watch this season. The Panthers have the schedule to be a factor in the Coastal, especially if Chad Voytik settles into the starting role at quarterback.
In the Atlantic, Syracuse is a team worth monitoring in terms of sleeper status. The Orange finished 7-6 in Scott Shafer’s first season and return quarterback Terrel Hunt and a solid group of skill players.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Which Team is a Sleeper to Watch in the ACC in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I like Pittsburgh as a sleeper team to watch in 2014. The favorite in the Coastal Division is really anyone’s guess, and the Panthers have one of the league’s best crossover schedules. Pittsburgh doesn’t play Florida State, Clemson or Louisville from the Atlantic and hosts Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke in key games against its Coastal foes. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is impossible to replace, but Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render should form a solid duo on the interior. Second-year coordinator Matt House needs to replace two starters in the secondary as well, but there’s enough talent returning for this unit to ensure a huge drop-off won’t happen. While the defense has a few question marks, I think the offense could have a breakout year. Chad Voytik is a promising quarterback, the Panthers have two solid running backs in James Conner and Isaac Bennett, while receiver Tyler Boyd is already among the nation’s best. The offensive line has been a weakness in recent years, but this unit returns four starters and appears ready to turn a corner in 2014. With a tight Coastal race expected, very little will separate the top six teams in the division. And with a favorable schedule, Pittsburgh is a darkhorse team to watch in the Coastal title picture.
Mark Ennis, (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
This is going to sound ridiculous, given the way that last season went for them, but I have a feeling that one team worth watching that folks might not be talking about as much is NC State. Dave Doeren didn't forget how to coach or be innovative last year. He just took over a roster that didn't completely fit what he likes to do and, frankly, he didn't have a healthy quarterback. With Jacoby Brissett in the fold now, Doeren will get to unleash his unique version of a power spread offense and will lead the Wolfpack to a significant bounce back in 2014. The schedule doesn't hurt either. Non-conference games against Georgia State, Old Dominion, South Florida, and Presbyterian should guarantee a 4-0 start. They won't beat Florida State or Clemson, but they'll be 4-2 with games against Boston College, Syracuse, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina. It's not unthinkable that they win 3-4 of those games to get to 7-5 or 8-4.
Even though the Pittsburgh Panthers lost the ACC Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) and will have a new quarterback under center this fall, I think there's a chance this team could surprise in the Coastal Division. Head coach Paul Chryst will hand the reins of the offense over to sophomore Chad Voytik, who looked pretty impressive after taking over for an injured Tom Savage in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green. Voytik has wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who broke Larry Fitzgerald's freshman receiving records last season, to throw to and should get support from a ground game and offensive line that gained valuable experience in 2013. The defense will clearly miss Donald, but returns 21 players who saw significant action last season and should be led by a relatively deep linebacking corps. Another reason I like Pitt is its schedule. Outside of hosting Iowa, the non-conference slate is easy and the Panthers will host Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in divisional play. Crossover games are against Syracuse and at Boston College, so depending on how Pitt handles late road trips to Chapel Hill, N.C., and Miami, I think there's a chance for Chryst's team to post as many as nine wins and finish above .500 in the ACC. Considering how crowded the Coastal is expected to be with Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina and Miami jockeying for the top spots, don't be surprised if Pitt forces its way into the discussion too.
Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
I'm going to wimp out with this one and pick Louisville as my "sleeper" ACC team for 2014. I know, I know, I'm picking a team that has won 23 games in the last two seasons, including two bowl victories. Not exactly a gutsy pick, right? But with Charlie Strong off to Texas, Teddy Bridgewater off to the land of NFL Draft speculation and the Cardinals off to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it would be awfully easy to write off U of L this coming season.
Still, there is a lot to love about Louisville for 2014. Bobby Petrino's back in the fold to replace Strong, and Will Gardner seems groomed to replace Bridgewater (at least on paper). Plus, add in wide out DeVante Parker, an NFL-caliber player, and the Cardinals could be lighting up scoreboards like they did during Petrino's first go around in The Blue Grass State. The other side of the ball will likely be a different story, especially without Strong's guiding hand and a change of defensive schemes. But there is plenty of talent to be competitive in the Atlantic Division -- which, outside of Florida State, isn't exactly a Murder's Row (especially with Clemson looking to replace both Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd). Louisville could be off the national radar for a bit this coming season, but that probably won't be the case for long.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Technically, anyone not named Florida State has to be considered a "sleeper" in the ACC since the Seminoles are vastly superior to every other team and will be the prohibitive favorite to run away with the league. And since pretty much everyone in the Coastal is a contender, I will go further off the board with the Pitt Panthers. I have long been a believer in Paul Chryst and his ability to produce an effective offense dating back to his days in Madison. He now has his guy under center (Chad Voytik), returns four offensive line starters and has a developing superstar on the outside to work around (Tyler Boyd). Top off an emerging roster with a schedule that doesn't include Florida State, Clemson or Louisville in crossover play and Pitt could sneak into the Coastal Division mix as a true sleeper in the ACC this fall.
Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
Hopefully I’m not stealing a future topic with a bold prediction, but I think Duke will surprise and, while I’m not guaranteeing a Coastal title defense, they should be in contention once again.
When I first considered the question, I was trying to find a team that would make a dramatic jump in their win total. I had serious trouble finding an ACC squad that I thought will significantly improve in that department, but I think Duke staying near the top of the Coastal counts as a surprise. Simply because they are Duke, people will sleep on them heading into 2014.
The Blue Devil offense returns several key pieces, including starting quarterback Anthony Boone — seemingly a rarity in the ACC this year — as well as star receiver Jamison Crowder, tight end Braxton Deaver, who will be one of the league’s best, and running back Josh Snead, last year’s leading rusher. Also, the three top tacklers from 2013 — linebacker David Helton, safety Jeremy Cash and linebacker Kelby Brown — all return, and the trio combined for 368 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, four forced fumbles and four recovered fumbles.
As long as I justified why I can call the defending Coastal Champs a sleeper, put me down for David Cutcliffe’s squad as the one people will sleep on heading into 2014.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The ACC won’t be fun to watch. I’m going to start with that. Florida State may win its share of blow outs. Clemson is in a rebuilding year. Virginia Tech is ambling along. Louisville might be interesting in its first year in the league. Other than that, every team is just fighting for anything it can get. I suppose if any team could do what Duke did last year and emerge from obscurity to claim the Coastal Division title, it’s Pittsburgh. No one will pay too much attention to the Panthers without Aaron Donald, especially if Tom Savage ends up as a high draft pick. But there’s enough here to go 5-3 in the division, which, sadly, could be enough to win the Coastal. I like Chad Voytik as a quarterback, and he’ll have plenty of tools to succeed with a star receiver in Tyler Boyd, four starting offensive linemen returning and two capable running backs. Pitt’s defense will take a step back without Donald, but the Panthers face Boston College and Syracuse (rather than FSU, Clemson or Louisville) from the Atlantic. The defense might be able to hold on enough to make a run at the division.
John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
If we're going away from teams that everyone's picking to be at or near the top of their respective divisions (Florida State, Clemson, Duke, Miami, North Carolina), then the answer's pretty clear to me: the Syracuse Orange. Yes, total homer pick. But at the same time, why not SU? The Orange return four of five starters on the offensive line. They bring back Terrel Hunt, a very experienced group of receivers and outside of Jerome Smith, their entire running game. The secondary may be addition by subtraction, and the front seven has more depth than last year. Plus, look at that schedule. Four of their five toughest opponents -- Florida State, Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville -- are at "home" (they count MetLife as a home game). Three of their four non-conference matchups look very winnable. No, Syracuse is not going to win the Atlantic. But don't be surprised if the Orange make even more noise than last year, and find themselves somewhere around 8-4 (5-3) at the end of the regular season.